You’d think that, by definition, the Little Way doesn’t need dumbing down. And yet, while St. Thérèse of Lisieux said, “For simple souls, there are no complicated ways,” many of us find the opposite in ourselves: “For complicated souls, there are no simple ways.”
So while it’s true that the Little Way is not complicated, Jesus has provided a primer for the modern world, a book that takes Thérèse’s message down a notch, while losing none of its charm. And though this new book might well have been called The Little Way for Dummies, its actual title is Conversations. It was written in the mid-1940’s, but in God’s Providence it’s making its appearance now, just when we need it.
Servant of God Marcel Van
The author of this little way for dummies is the barely known spiritual little brother of St. Thérèse, the Vietnamese Servant of God Marcel Van who was, when he took down Conversations, a novice with the Redemptorists. I say “took down” because while some of the words come from the author, others come from higher sources than Marcel. As the subtitle explains, the conversations are “with Jesus, Mary and Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”Marcel was merely their little secretary, carefully transcribing their words in obedience to Jesus. He dutifully handed over his sheets of paper to his novice master and spiritual director, Father Antonio Boucher, CSsR, who carefully guarded them and, much later, translated Marcel’s Vietnamese into French.
It was only 10 years ago that an English edition of Conversations came out, so don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t heard of it — or Marcel Van— yet. A few more moments of reading and you’ll know all you need to get started on the Little Way for Dummies.
Little Brother of the Little Flower
Marcel is the ideal author for such a little way, because he’s about as little as they come, so little that he compelled Thérèse to come teach him her Little Way personally, though he’d read and re-read Story of a Soul. His forgetfulness and utter simplicity drew Jesus, too, into the picture, not to mention Mary, and between these three (God, the Mother of God, and “the greatest saint of modern times” according to St. Pope Piux X), we get what we might call, “The Little Way for the Rest of Us.”
I don’t think the world could wait another second.
If we do the math, St. Thérèse, while very modern, nonetheless died 120 years ago now. While new books keep her message constantly fresh, still we can’t help but note that Marcel Van, her littlest protegé, died in 1959 — just on the cusp of the world-changing 1960’s — and this makes him practically our contemporary. He died at the tender age of 31, and would be 90 this year if he’d lived to the present day. In that sense he’s a saint for our time, practically in our time, and given our ability to fall farther and farther into spiritual poverty, I’m convinced God has saved Marcel for us, now, because now is when we need him most. Here, briefly, is his story.
Early Life of Marcel Van
Born in 1928 near Hanoi and baptized Joachim Van the next day, our hero felt from early childhood a deep and urgent desire to become a priest. At age 7, he convinced his mom to take him to visit a priest in another town, and then convinced her to let him stay and begin the life that would lead to his ordination.
He was so adamant, and the priest seemed so good, that his mother left him there, and what happened next makes for fascinating, if poignant, reading in the Autobiography he wrote 10 years later. The end result, after mistreatment, ill health and injury, escapes and forced returns, was finally Van’s landing in a good pre-seminary where he started his studies for the priesthood.
And then, when he least expected it, he stumbled upon St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul. After overcoming an initial repulsion to it (no pictures, for one thing), he began reading and found his soul-mate.
This was in 1942 when Van was 14, and soon after he asked this Saint who spoke to his soul to be his big sister. And then she really spoke to him. As in, “Dear little brother, this is your big sister St. Thérèse. I’ve been watching over you since you were born, but the time has come for you to know me, and for me to instruct you in how much God loves you and how you can love Him back!”
In Love with the Saints
Van was smitten, and so when his big sister told him later that God did not want him to be a priest, but rather a religious, he accepted with a good grace. He ended up joining the Redemptorists, where his novice master instructed Brother Marcel (Van’s name in religion) to write down the conversations he was having with Jesus, Mary, and Thérèse.
Van’s job was to write not only the words of the saints, but his own. This would, Jesus explained, ensure that none would feel they were too little or too stupid, too ignorant, too forgetful, or too anything that we so often feel, to speak intimately and naturally with Him, the tremendous lover of children and little souls.
Marcel obeyed his director and Jesus, and he wrote. He wrote a lot.
His director asked him to write the story of his life, also, and so Marcel wrote and wrote and wrote. He was a 17-year-old novice partaking fully in community life, progressing through his novitiate, and eventually becoming a full member of the Redemptorists as a brother.
Returning to North Vietnam
In 1950, obedience brought him to the south of Vietnam, but four years later when Communists took over in the north, Marcel asked permission to return there. He wanted to be sure that someone would love God amidst the unloving Communists.
He got his wish and, aged 28, returned to Hanoi on the last plane traveling from the South to the North. Within a few months he was arrested in the marketplace on a trumped up charge and condemned to 15 years of “re-education.” Marcel was heroic in the camps, compassionate and merciful to those around him as the Saints are wont to be; he even tried to sneak out to obtain the Holy Eucharist for his fellow prisoners.
When caught, he was further punished, and eventually his health broke. He died three years after his arrest, on July 10, 1959.
In the eyes of the foolish, that was the end of Marcel Van. Father Antonio Boucher, however, was far from foolish. He had made sure to entrust a copy of Marcel’s writings to a fellow Redemptorist priest who brought them safely to Canada. When Fr. Boucher later retired there, he spent 20 years translating Marcel’s words from Vietnamese into French, and lived long enough to see Marcel’s cause introduced.
The first postulator of the cause was Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who now has his own cause and whose heroic virtues have recently been recognized by the Church.
Marcel’s current champion (vice-postulator) is a French Benedictine, Pére Olivier de Roulhac. He explains, in this wonderful video on Marcel, just why Marcel was the perfect one to write the Little Way for Dummies. He says:
“St. Thérèse wrote at the end of her Manuscript B, ‘If by chance God found a soul smaller than mine and still more simple, I really believe that He would fill it with graces still greater.’ I believe that this soul is truly Van.”
St. Thérèse also wrote, in a nutshell description of her Little Way, that “Holiness is not one exercise or another. It consists in a disposition of the heart which renders us humble and little in the hands of God, conscious of our weakness but confident, even daringly confident, in God’s goodness.”
I recommend Marcel’s writings because they are the short cut to his big sister’s famous path. Despite our progress, our technology, our libraries of how-to books, we continue to be fairly dumb sheep, and Marcel is the perfectly imperfect dumbest sheep of us all, ready and willing to lead us through this dark valley and into the Father’s arms. If you doubt that Marcel is the most eminently qualified to lead us in virtue of his fulfilling St. Thérèse’s requirements of weakness and littleness, listen to Jesus. He told Marcel:
“Little brother, it is necessary for you to know that you are very weak, that no soul is as weak as yours; and I admit that your weaknesses never cause Me the slightest sadness.” (506)
“What did your sister Thérèse teach you? You have forgotten everything already; it’s hopeless! And it is also so much the better, since what you have forgotten, I am always there to remind you of and then you can continually learn the lesson anew. What happiness can be compared to yours?” (387)
Although Jesus speaks of Marcel not making him sad, and even says “What happiness can be compared to yours?”—so both of them are seemingly content—it may still strike us as a bit doleful, all this talk of Marcel’s being the weakest of the weak, and our being dummies to boot.
Jesus and Marcel Van
It’s not depressing stuff, believe me. The problem is that my language does a poor job of conveying Jesus’ language, and He tells us that even His language is poor for the task of conveying to us His limitless love. Jesus explains:
“The words I am addressing to you here are far from expressing all the love that I bear for souls. I do not know what human language to employ to translate the full intimacy of this love. The intimate words that I address as well to other souls, I borrow from the language that people ordinarily use to express their feelings. If I used the intimate language that is more suitable for me to use when speaking to you, you would understand nothing. Indeed, my child, humanly speaking, my words are the expression of the deepest love; but I, I regard them as being only a simple glance of my love.” (39)
Jesus’ message to Marcel is the same timeless message He’s spoken to mystics of all ages, and His particular message to us through this mystic of our own age.
Being a dummy myself, I’ve made a bit of a hash of this article — I’ve not even touched on the utter hilarity that epitomizes the Conversations and emanates from page after page. Who else could tempt Jesus to “laugh insanely” as He says Marcel does? (You can read about that here—it was Marcel’s picture of the Holy Innocents in heaven that did it.)
I’ve given in to the temptation and laughed a lot over Marcel’s responses to the deepest of Jesus’ revelations. Sometimes he complains of a headache, or his too-tight soutane, or his old sandals. Other times it is an honest, “Sorry, Jesus, but I’ve forgotten everything you just said. Can you repeat it?” or a frustrated, “I don’t understand any of this!”
Jesus replies gently, “The more you forget, the more you see your weakness and your ignorance, and the more you are dear to me and receive my kisses” (178). And with tenderness, “It is sufficient that you understand these few words: your duty simply consists in writing; in the matter of understanding, that’s your director’s business.”
Jesus chose Marcel’s director well, and thanks to Fr. Boucher’s discernment, foresight and dedication, we have more than one book on the Little Way for Dummies—we’ve got four books by Marcel, and the whole opera omnia has been translated into English now, as well as French. I suggest starting with the Conversations, and while you wait for those to arrive in your mailbox, you can get to know Marcel better at the blog I’ve started in his honor.
He’s ready to share the Little Way with the world, and knowing Marcel, he’s eager to welcome everyone, idiots and intelligentia alike. Still, I can’t help but imagine he’ll be especially delighted to befriend those of us who happily identify as dummies.